By Ivor Levene
The Monkees are in the middle of their "last" tour, or at least they won't be touring under The Monkees moniker again. I managed to catch up with Micky Dolenz in between shows to discuss touring, the band's early history, and being a rock and roll counselor.
GOLDMINE: The first thing I want to ask about is your tour. You guys are following a schedule that harkens back to the 1970's, playing 40 gigs in 10 weeks. That's a schedule that could seriously tax someone half your age, what's your secret?
MICKY DOLENZ: That's not that many compared to some of the other Monkees tours in the past. Back in 1986, we were out for a year and we were sometimes doing four or five shows a week. Nez and I insisted that we only do three in a row and then have a day off. That day may be a travel day, but at least there's no show and not an enormous long haul, overnight in the bus for eight or 10 hours. Either it's a quick hop after a show or it's a first-class flight or even a private plane.
GM: What's life on the road like? Do you all travel in one bus?
MD: I'm sure you've seen inside of a tour bus before, right? Well, we each have our own and they're pretty luxurious. This one even has a shower. The thing that I avoid and have to avoid is long trips on the bus because I get carsick. They're really luxurious and have all the bells and whistles, but it's still a bus. If it's more than a few hours, then I'll either fly first class or take a private jet. So compared to some of the tours I've done in the past, this has been pretty luxurious. You know the old joke, "They pay us to travel. We sing for free".
GM: So why pack so many shows into such a short time? You have 40-something shows packed into around 10 weeks, that's got to be very grueling.
MD: Well, it does come down at some point to the economics, our show is quite expensive. We've got 10 or 12 people on stage, and then there's the crew. It's one truck, four buses and a shit load of equipment. There are salaries and lot of hotels because, we choose to stay at hotels, rather than on the bus all the time. It adds up, so you've got to make it economically viable and feasible. To do that, you've got to have a certain number of dates because your break-even point on a thing like this is not for weeks probably. It's not uncommon for the profits to only show up in the last part of a tour. It's going to be weird, I haven't toured in God knows how long, but it's been pretty casual. Like for instance, we finished up a few days ago and I was able to come back here to LA and have a few days. I checked out my house, saw some friends and my daughter, and went bowling, and then I'm off to Memphis on Thursday.
GM: How has COVID-19 affected the tour? It was originally supposed to have taken place in 2019 wasn't it?
MD: Well, so far so good, we have an internal protocol that everybody has agreed to. Everybody is vaccinated and everybody wears a mask if there's any strangers around, until we go on stage. There are no meet and greets, no backstage passes, no after-show parties, nothing like that. Everybody has been very good about it. There was one date, I believe it was Texas where the venue came up with their own internal protocols and mandates and stuff. A number of the audience requested a refund. We said fine, but we had to pull that date because it just didn't make it make any sense, but you can't do anything about that. That's the venue's prerogative. We're doing Texas now, Memphis and Florida. I've heard that Florida is the deadliest spot in the United States if I'm not mistaken, but as I say, we're in a very tight bubble, and everybody in the company respects that.
GM: I know you're a month through this tour, and keeping anything under wraps on the internet is futile, but are there any surprises fans can expect? Any special guests on the bill for the final show at The Greek Theater?
MD: Well, not yet. We've talked about having some guests, but given the COVID-19 thing and the protocols and the time it takes to work something like that up, I kind of doubt it. Did you see the 2018 show? It's basically the same show, It's the Mike and Micky show, which we put together in 2018. Most of these dates are cover dates, they are dates that are fulfilling contracts and gigs that we had booked in 2018. Most of them are. And so all these fans have held their tickets for two years.
GM: That's what I call some very loyal fans. After the pandemic started, I read hundreds of accounts of people wanting Ticketmaster to refund their purchases and ended up battling with them over refunds.
MD: Much to my pleasure and surprise, most of them kept their tickets, which is amazing considering that this tour got postponed two or three times. It's basically that 2018 show. We have an album out from that tour called The Mike and Micky Show Live. If you listen to it, that's basically the show. We've added a few things, we swapped some stuff around, but basically, it's the same band and it's the same show.
GM: You've billed this as the final Monkees tour, why are you retiring?
MD: Well, it's not so much retiring. It's that it's unlikely that Mike and I would go out as The Monkees. I don't know if he has any solo aspirations after this, but I do. I'm going to be going out solo, I've every intention of doing that. Mike and I were a little bit uncomfortable about going out with The Monkees banner because it's only two of us. That's why we insisted that it be called "The Monkees Present the Mike and Micky Show.". We did some research and we did some polling and we got some feedback from the fans and they were quite happy. They didn't have any problem with it because most of our fans understand that The Monkees was not a traditional band in a classic sense. It was a TV show called The Monkees. The Monkees was a project. The Monkees was a television show. It was music, it was a movie, it was the four of us. It was hundreds of other producers, writers, directors, songwriters.
GM: So much has been said about The Monkees. "They weren't a real band." or calling you guys "The Pre-Fab Four." How did you deal with that over the years?
MD: That's the interesting story about it. The audition process we went through for the show kind of explains it better. The show was cast much as you would cast a Broadway musical. I've done some Broadway musicals now, so I can tell you that there's a lot of similarities. Let's say your typical television series, a sitcom television series, there's really only a script reading, and you might do a screen test, just reading dialogue or doing a scene, but with The Monkees, you had to be able to, of course, act, read the lines, do the scenes, and perform the dialogue. But you also had to be able to improvise, the show was heavily weighted towards improvisation, which was very unusual at the time.
GM: All of you had either musical talent or previous experiences with acting, didn't you?
MD: Yes, more importantly, you had to be able to sing and you had to be able to play an instrument just to get into the auditions. I played guitar, my first instrument was Spanish guitar that then morphed into folk music and then rock and roll. My audition piece for The Monkees was "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry. I don't remember what Mike did, I think one of his own tunes. Peter did a folk tune. You had to do that to get into the audition. So the producers clearly had in mind that if the show sold, they had some pretty healthy songwriting potentially behind it because the Brill building in New York was part of Screen Gems, publishing music. The Brill building was Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond. If you saw Beautiful, the play about Carole King, They even mentioned The Monkees in that. I don't think by name, but "Pleasant Valley Sunday" is mentioned.
When the pilot sold, and we started shooting the series, we immediately started rehearsing. You know, the closest thing that's come along in the years? There have been other attempts to redo The Monkees kind of thing, but the closest thing that I've seen is the show Glee. It's not on the air anymore, but it was a show as you probably remember about a glee club. And it was an imaginary glee club, of course. Those actors and actresses could sing and dance, and they could do whatever, and they went on the road, I think. But this of course is decades later when everybody was more used to it, the crossover between television and music. Nobody said to the Glee people, "It was a manufactured glee club!" So if you do the research and you understand how it happened in 1966, the whole thing makes more sense. The Monkees was a television show about an imaginary band that lived in this beach house in Malibu.
GM: Yeah, but there was a huge segment of the population that didn't see The Monkees as a TV show about an imaginary band. I, for instance, was at the perfect age to absorb what The Monkees did. I was six years old, and I had no idea that The Monkees were anything but a real band. I had all the records, I heard them on the radio constantly. I just thought that the TV show was kind of like a "bonus" thing. I thought The Monkees were a legitimate counterpart to The Beatles.
MD: You know, everybody said The Monkees were the American answer to The Beatles, and that was not the case. The Monkees was a television show about this band who wanted to be The Beatles and on the television show, we never made it. It was that struggle for success that I think helped endear it to an entire generation of kids that were in their basements and living rooms and garages, playing and practicing and forming bands and who wanted to be The Beatles and maybe eventually The Monkees. It was about that struggle for success, about that journey. That in a way is what The Monkees was about. We had a poster of The Beatles in our beach house, which was a set on Columbia studios. And it does beg the question of how we could afford a beach house in Malibu when we never got any work?
So that's how it happened. And then we went on the road as a real, fully formed, fully fledged band. Did you ever hear The Monkees' Live 1967?
MD: It was a terrible recording. It wasn't recorded to be released. It sounds to me like it was some soundcheck that the sound engineer just stuck a mic up in the air because it's terrible reproduction, but that's us, just the four of us live. Mike Nesmith says at that point, apropos of what I was explaining, "The Monkees were like Pinocchio becoming a real little boy." And that is the fascinating story, about the project, about the whole Monkees thing. And now it happens frequently, bands are put together in different ways all the time. The Sex Pistols for instance, you know, that story. They were put together by a guy that ran a clothing store.
You know, you can say that about The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was Chas Chandler that put Jimi together with Noel and Mitch. Jimi probably had some say in the name, because up until then it was just Jimmy James, and then I think he think he went to Jimi Hendrix. So, that happens all the time now, but in 1966 it had never happened. And that's why it confused a lot of people, especially people in the music business, and especially people that at that time, shall we say, took their rock and roll very seriously. I call them the "hip-eoi-sie". A lot of people just didn't get it, not that it made much difference because the proof is in the pudding and the people that I've cared about, they got it. Frank Zappa was a huge fan. He got it, he was on the show and in the movie, but the hip-eoi-sie didn't get it.
GM: It seems that there was a certain subset of the famous musicians at the time who did get it. There are many instances that were documented of you hanging out with that era's top acts. I've read accounts of your trip to England where you were thrown a party by The Beatles. So regardless of the naysayers, your peers thought you were their contemporaries. If you had been just a TV show, there is no way that The Beatles would have hung with you.
MD: John Lennon was one of the first to say, "I think The Monkees are a lot like The Marx Brothers," and that was incredibly accurate. And if you really look at it from a historical point of view, The Monkees was like a little half hour Marx Brothers movie on TV because those Marx brothers movies were an adventure. They had a bad guy, they had, women, love affairs, chases and physical humor. They also sang songs, danced and played instruments. And so if you look at The Monkees like that, like a little theatrical half-hour musical on television, the whole thing makes a lot more sense.
GM: Surely you're aware that there's a large swath of the listening public that had absolutely no idea that the TV show came first. I was at that perfect age for The Monkees back in 1966, I thought it was a real band, I had all the records. I just thought the TV show was bonus material. There were many bands back then that were really just The Wrecking Crew, with someone's vocals laid over top of it. The Monkees were no exception.
MD: Oh my God, there wasn't a single Beach Boy on "Good Vibrations," as you know, that was all The Wrecking Crew. You saw The Wrecking Crew documentary, right? I'm so glad I'm thrilled that they finally got the recognition they deserved, they were amazing!
GM: If you were to list all the recordings that The Wrecking Crew played on, you'd have a very long list. Say what you want, but I think you had some very fine vocals there.
MD: I appreciate it, thank you, but I also had some of the greatest songwriters in the world writing for me. So it makes it a little easier to sing a good song when it's a good song. You can screw it up, I suppose, but that's kind of tough when you have that quality and material.
GM: What do you think it was that made The Monkees so popular?
MD: I get asked that a lot. What made The Monkees so successful? You cannot reduce something like that. You can't take it apart. It's like taking a watch apart to see how it works. Of course you can, but it's no longer a watch. It doesn't work. And you can't do that in our business, especially if it's a television show or an album, bands, music or movies or anything like that, you can't take it apart. Like you can't take Star Trek apart and say, "Well, it was only William Shatner, that was the reason it was so successful." Well, of course not, It doesn't work like that. What happens is at a certain point, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And if you're lucky and if you work hard and if you surround yourself with talented people who also work hard, and there are no guarantees, because if there were guarantees, there'd never be a flop, ever.
So, that's the short answer. The fact is that it's lasted 50 years, and not just the music and the reruns on the television show, the 1986 reunion alone, you know?
GM: I was at one of those reunion gigs back in 1986, it was a great show. I had not seen that level of audience enthusiasm since the early '70s. The place was packed with screaming girls holding signs that said, "We love you Davy." Quite frankly, it was pandemonium. And we have David Fishof to thank for that, the genius behind Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. How did that initially happen?
MD: David Fishof was the one that tracked us all down and made us an offer. I was in production on a television series in England, directing and producing. I don't know if you knew that that's what I, I did over in England 15 years after The Monkees. He tracked me down at my big rock and roll mansion out in Nottinghamshire and said, "Do you want to go back on the road with The Monkees, a 20 year reunion?" I talked to my wife and I was going to have a hiatus that summer for a couple of months. I said, "Yeah, it's fine. We'll do it." We had three little kids and we were playing a lot of amusement parks and fairs and stuff. So that'd be great fun for the kids. And two years later, we were still on the road.
GM: Ever given any thought to doing a Rock Fantasy Camp?
MD: I did a few when it first started out, I gave David Fishof a lot of advice. When he was creating it, he asked me my thoughts on it. And then I did a few. It was so much fun, that was good!
GM: Well, perhaps I’ll see you in person if you do another one. Stay safe out there!
If you want to catch The Monkees before the tour ends, click here.
For more on Micky's latest album, click here.
To get a special limited 180 gram turquoise colored vinyl LP pressing of Micky's 2021 release, click here.